The Spiral’s Return?

The future of educational travel to Israel as Birthright participation numbers drop

In Short

How do you make a trip to Israel just the first stop on a long, engaged Jewish journey? 

Recent reports have indicated that the number of participants in travel programs run by Taglit – Birthright Israel is expected to drop. The explanations provided by the leadership of Taglit attributed the decrease to lower funding from philanthropy and to the higher costs of travel. Whatever the reasons may be, this is an opportunity to reflect on the broader issues of educational travel to Israel.

In the 1990s, it was widely recognized that an educational trip to Israel was an essential building block for the identity of young Jews. The discourse in those days was influenced by alarming demographic studies that raised concerns around what was then called “Jewish continuity.” A trip to Israel was considered an effective educational intervention and a good investment in the Jewish identity of the next generation. The common term that captured this concept was the “Israel experience.” A loosely knit professional community of organizations and individuals was formed to serve this growing industry. Support from communities, foundations and individual donors was growing. As a result, the number of participants in travel programs began to grow.

One term that was coined in the Israel travel discourse in those days was: the Spiral. The Spiral concept asserted that travel to Israel should not be a singular occurrence. Youth and young adults in the Diaspora should be channeled to travel to Israel multiple times in a structured and graded process (similar to attending summer camp, year in and year out). The Spiral concept assumed that the first visit to Israel should take place during the formative teen years, in the framework of professional educational guidance and preferably with peers. After the “first taste” of Israel, the youth would be encouraged to come again for longer and more focused programs, leading to deep immersion in Israeli society and culture.

Typically, high-school-age youth from around the world came on their first trip to Israel during their school breaks. The youth programs were usually several weeks long and professionally led. As years went by, programs also included a component of mifgash, time spent with Israeli peers. Several research projects were initiated to track the effects of the programs, and all indicated that the experience is powerful and potentially offers long-term impact. The Spiral assumed that after the initial experience, the graduates would return to Israel again and again for study, volunteering, leadership development and intensive immersion in Israeli life. Graduates of the Spiral would then possess a solid Jewish identity in their adulthood with a strong and lasting connection to Israel.

Sadly, the Spiral concept never received the strategic endorsement it deserved. At no time was there a central system for policy and planning of Israel travel programs that would advance such an overarching concept for Jewish youth around the world. In 2001, I joined the senior staff of the Jewish Agency’s for Israel’s education department. As a global Jewish organization, JAFI saw its role as a convener of such a system. My role was to head a new unit called: The Jewish Experience of Israel – Policy and Planning. When the JAFI unit was formed, Birthright Israel was already in its early stages. At the same time, the Second Intifada was raging, causing devastation to Israel travel, primarily to the youth programs.

JAFI’s attempt to assert leadership in the field did not succeed. Soon after the formation of the Jewish Experience of Israel unit, it became clear that Birthright Israel was emerging as the most significant player in the field. Birthright, an independently run international corporation, introduced several new features that were not common in the Israel travel industry: a free trip, relieving parents from the high expenditure associated with Israel travel; an experience that was radically shorter than what was considered the norm; a minimum age of 18 for eligibility (thus excluding the high school age travel option as a free trip); and finally, a new organizational structure that opened the field to new for-profit and non-for-profit program providers. 

As a result, masses of young Jews flocked to the Taglit model. Taglit – Birthright became the buzz of the Jewish world and practically synonymous with Israel travel. A robust research apparatus run by Brandeis University provided impressive data on the impact the programs had on the participants. Birthright was celebrated the world over.

Twenty-three years after the establishment of Birthright, one cannot argue with the power of this initiative. I would dare say that Birthright had a profound impact on Jewish life, far beyond the impact it had on individual participants. But like every good product, it needs to always be revisited and adapted to changing realities. The leaders of Birthright themselves were aware of this need and introduced over the years a myriad of programmatic innovations that would renew their own system.

Perhaps this is a good time to revisit the Spiral concept. Now that the government is funding and partnering with other, new initiatives for Israel travel, it is time to set up the table where Israel travel will be planned and monitored in a systematic way. Those involved should discuss the overall strategic goals of this endeavor and agree on several universal principles: the optimal age and setting for the “first visit”; the universal gift (subsidy) that Jewish youth should receive for their travel needs; the organizational and educational principles and standards that need to be employed in every program; the methods of building a system that would encourage the graduates to return to Israel and deepen their engagement; creating a system that will keep the graduates engaged in Jewish life and in Israel in their adulthood; investments in new technologies for management and research that will serve the entire field, and more.

Taglit Birthright Israel taught the Jewish world an important lesson about innovation and determination. Seventy-five years after the establishment of Israel, the challenge is to deepen the connection of world Jewry to the Jewish nation-state. The challenge of sustainable engagement with Israel among young Jews in the Diaspora is immense. Now is the time to work together toward this goal.

Elan Ezrachi is a Jerusalem-based consultant in the areas of Jewish peoplehood and Israel engagement. He was the first CEO of Masa – Israel Journey.